Daniel L. Feldman

Chairing the Committee on Correction: Responsibilities, Relationships, and Rewards

In Policy on February 3, 2012 at 12:17 pm

I did not just visit these prisons and jails. My job, as I saw it, required me to help inmates and reduce the number of future crime victims by winning more and better drug abuse treatment programs, correctional industry programs that more significantly reduced recidivism, AIDS education to reduce its spread within prison, special units for the developmentally disabled and mentally ill who would otherwise undergo extraordinary suffering in prison, and other services. It required me to help inmates, as well as correction officers, by increasing inadequate staffing levels to the point at which the officers could more effectively protect the inmates and themselves. It required me to help taxpayers by eliminating very expensive and unnecessary or counterproductive incarceration of non-violent low-level drug offenders and terminally ill inmates too sick to pose any danger to society.  It required me to investigate allegations of mistreatment and brutality of inmates, and to see to that such behavior was punished and not permitted to recur. I tried to do all these things, and succeeded at many.

As my late Assembly colleague Tony Genovesi once taught me, shortly after I took office and well before he did, each member of the Legislature represents his or her district, but also must assume responsibility as, in effect, a member of the Board of Directors of the State of New York.

In recognition of my work, I was part of a delegation of American prison experts invited to Hungary in 1991 to advise representatives of former Soviet bloc countries now emerging from communism on modern democratic prison administration. For three days we lectured, with our remarks translated into a variety of East European and Asian languages. Then, our hosts took us on a tour of a Hungarian prison. To my considerable embarrassment, their prison clearly exhibited administration generally superior to ours. Inmates engaged in well-run educational and occupational programs, violence by inmates or officers was virtually absent, and – most impressive to me – the food smelled and tasted delicious! Hungarians take great pride in their cuisine, even in prison. While I had occasionally encountered palatable food in my New York prison tours, it was never anything one could call “delicious.”

In one respect, though, the Hungarian prison did lack some logic. The authorities exhibited their security arrangements. In Europe, starting at least as early as the storming of the Bastille in 1789, prison officials greatly feared the forcible release of prisoners. Under the Nazis and under the Communists, prisons in Hungary and elsewhere housed many political prisoners, so it was not inconceivable that some political movement might launch a campaign to free them by force. With considerable pride, the prison officials showed us the ultimate guarantor of their security, a set of enormous sixteen-foot machine guns – all pointed out! None of us were cruel enough to alert them to the fact that no one was going to be breaking into the prison.

Our embarrassment did not extend to most of the non-Hungarian participants, however. Their inquiries to us included such subjects as whether we would approve the extended use of cold water, to a depth of a foot or so, as punishment in inmates’ cells. We wondered which punishments they refrained from asking us about.

Back in New York, by this time I had worked with Tom Coughlin for a number of years, and we had developed a good relationship, despite the occasional embarrassing newspaper coverage of my criticisms. On one occasion I asked him why he tolerated resistance to his generally sensible policies by some prison wardens and some correction officers. He said, “Dan, your people all serve you ‘at will.’ That means that if they don’t do what you want, you can fire them. I don’t have that luxury. I have employees with civil service protection and unions.” I understood.

When George Pataki became governor in 1995, he replaced Coughlin as commissioner with Phil Coombe, a fellow Republican and a competent administrator, although in my view not up to Coughlin’s extremely high standard. Tom eventually took a job with a Health Maintenance Organization – a variety of insurance company – in New Jersey. We stayed in touch. After a stretch of about a month when I could not reach him at his office, I called him at home in Watertown, New York. How come I can’t reach you at the office any more?, I asked.  “Oh,” he said. “I quit. I’m back in corrections, as a consultant, dealing with rapists and murderers again. They’re much more honest than those insurance company people.”

A few years later Tom died untimely young, of internal bleeding, as a result, many thought, of medical malpractice. I learned a lot from working with him, and liked him very much.


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